Helena native Jesse Jerome Smith won big on a Wheel of Fortune episode that aired Thursday.
The 2003 Capital High School graduate walked away with approximately $20,000 in cash and prizes, which included an all-expenses-paid vacation to Antigua, an island in the Caribbean.
However, the show wasn't all smooth sailing for him.
"It was a bit of a roller coaster for me," Smith said. "I hit bankrupt a few times during the show."
Smith said his main goal was to win the vacation on the third round, and he went bankrupt the prior two rounds. Just before the third round he took a knee and prayed to the universe for help, prompting host Pat Sajak to ask what he was doing.
Smith wound up getting an opportunity to solve the puzzle after the person ahead of him missed a letter. After solving the puzzle, he secured a trip for his family to Antigua, which he said was more than he could have ever hoped for.
However, that wasn't the end of Smith's luck. On the last round he wound up being able to solve the last puzzle. The answer was "Big Snow Shoes," which Smith said is appropriate for Montana.
Smith also got to participate in the show's bonus round, though he wasn't ultimately successful. However, Smith said he was so happy about his previous winnings that it didn't even register. Sajak said Smith didn't seem like he was too upset.
In total, Smith walked away with about $11,000 in cash and an all-expenses-paid vacation. Before going on the show, Smith decided the vacation was his big goal because he wanted to take his sister Katie and parents Leslie and Brad.
"They're all about it," Smith said. "They really deserve it."
The episode featuring Smith was recorded in October. He initially applied to the show in September, when his sister and a roommate were talking about going on a different game show. That ultimately fell through, but Smith said it made it less nerve-wracking to send in a video submission.
"So I thought, 'Why not try for Wheel?'" Smith said. "That's the one I really want to be on anyways."
For years, Smith had been receiving emails saying Wheel of Fortune was seeking contestants. It wasn't until this time that he thought about submitting an application, even though he grew up watching Wheel of Fortune and always wanted to be a contestant.
Smith said he had the opportunity to watch the filming of other Wheel of Fortune episodes while he was there. None of the contestants could actually touch the wheel with their hands due to COVID-19, but getting to meet hosts Sajak and Vanna White in real life was a surreal experience for Smith.
Smith described the atmosphere in the studio as very friendly, stating that all the producers and hosts were very encouraging to the contestants. Smith said he is now going to encourage his friends to send in applications for Wheel of Fortune, because the show is constantly looking for contestants.
"It was kind of surreal that it happened so quickly," Smith said. "It was almost more exciting in this time of COVID, where we don't get to do much."
Since the taping of his episode, Smith's life has changed a bit. Smith was working as a restaurant server when COVID-19 hit, and he spent the majority of the year out of a job. It wasn't until after appearing on the show that he secured a job working with a group that distributes COVID-19 vaccines. Smith said he knew he'd never work at a better restaurant than the last one, so he wanted to move away from that kind of work.
"Now I'm helping the community, which is what I really wanted to do," Smith said. "It's been a roller coaster of a year, but I'm thankful I came out on top and that I've got good news to share."
Smith grew up near Capital High School and moved to Los Angeles with his sister in 2010. His parents, Leslie and Brad, still live in Helena.